Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Birthday Take: Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday" (1953)

Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Audrey Hepburn
Born: May 4, 1929
Died: January 20, 1993 (63 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress - Roman Holiday (won) as Princess Ann

The Take

There is something to be said for that moment of discovery. I'm talking about the one when in film, there's a presence that shines so brightly that cinema seemed a lot duller before they showed up. Everyone knows a few of them, with many being able to turn to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Quick and the Dead or Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone. There's a power to cinema that makes certain faces unfortunately more worthy of gracing screens. The only downside is that as time goes on, their presence becomes so familiar that maybe the magic subsides. It never diminishes, but it becomes a thing taken for granted. Such is the case for Audrey Hepburn in director William Wyler's Roman Holiday, in which Gregory Peck whisks away a princess to enjoy a day of freedom. While Peck was the more established force at the time, Hepburn was the real discovery. With enthusiasm and a sense of fashion that would be considered quaint only a few years later thanks to Sabrina, it was the birth of an icon, and one that rivaled Katharine Hepburn for who deserved that last name more.

It wasn't her first film, as she had appeared in smaller roles such as The Lavender Hill Mob. However, she was so unseen by audiences that it didn't matter. While it set the unfortunate trend of Hepburn starring opposite older romantic leads, it also set the bar for what would be expected of. As a young and spry 24-year-old, she created an ideal form of youth that was both reserved and capable of expressing happiness. The comedy clearly worked, as it provided her with enough charming content to last the two hour running time. It also helped that the usually droll Peck somehow served as an appropriate sparer for the humor, cleverly written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. While comedy would be enough to make any performance enjoyable, there was a certain catch that took the film to another level.

It was the lingering sense that Roman Holiday could only a vacation. After all, Hepburn was a princess and Peck was a journalist. The two worlds thrive on ignoring each other and to date each other would throw chaos to order. It makes the romance all the more rich, and the inevitable conclusion becomes something both inevitable and undesired. As the two meet in a sanctioned event at the end of the film, their longing can only be seen in their eyes. It's never spoken. While it creates a metaphor for the accessible yet unattainable nature of Hepburn, it mostly helps to create a complex character that somehow escapes the isolating nature of the upper class. It's an archetype that Hepburn would continue to play for decades to come, most notably in Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Yet here is where it was all discovered, and where the charm that would fuel her career would inspire fans to imitate her fashion and aspire to be classy like her.

Hepburn starred in three films with Wyler: Roman Holiday, The Children's Hour, and How to Steal a Million. To some extent, each film managed to show a different side of Hepburn's charisma. While the first showed youth and naivety, The Children's Hour saw her take on a somber role that challenged lesbian relationships of the time. Even if Shirley MacLaine walked away with the better performance, Hepburn's observatory performance added weight to the story. The final film, a heist comedy co-starring Peter O'Toole, saw her perfecting the role of charming and witty with a reservation that comes with experience. The script is rich with wordplay, creating something that makes the familiar heist story come to life. If anything, Wyler helps to embody the career of Hepburn during her essential years. While she never had a bad period necessarily, she was - much like Wyler - a director of an earlier type of film making.  Sure, she worked with Peter Bogdanovich (The All Laughed) and Steven Spielberg (Always), but they were not the same in impact.

Hepburn is an actress that almost transcends time thanks to her charisma. While her fashion became a key component to her legacy later, it's interesting to note how simple she was early on. In Roman Holiday, where she won her sole Oscar, she was a discovery for the world, and left a mark that could've easily cemented her as giving one of the best performances. By some luck, she only continued to do more interesting work and became more defined. Still, it's hard to imagine what anyone's career is after only one film. Maybe Lawrence or DiCaprio could've faded and never gave us something grander. It's the magic of cinema that occasionally lets us have a gimme, letting us believe that magic exists and that some people were born for the screen. That explains Hepburn in Roman Holiday pretty well.

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